A thoroughfare to one of the most historically significant places of Delhi, Chandi Chowk opens up a Pandora’s box of cultural heritage. However, until a few years ago, it was on the verge of collapse. One of the busiest and the oldest markets of the capital city, Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi) was slowly succumbing to poor maintenance, putting the city’s legacy at stake. As dangerous electric wires dangled in bunches from poles, the honks of horns would rend the air while pedestrians scrambled for space as they trudged through the market. Chandni Chowk, was once a reflection of organised chaos.
However, a lot has changed since the Chandni Chowk redevelopment project was implemented by both the Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation (SRDC) and Delhi’s Public Works Department (PWD). Inaugurated on September 12 by Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, this revamped project encapsulates a 1.3km-long stretch, paved with red sandstone and granite, which extends from the Red Fort to Fatehpuri Masjid. Benches and plants adorn the new space, while signage makes navigation easy, and CCTVs are installed to ensure safety. In an attempt to make the market pedestrian-friendly, the stretch has also become a “no-traffic zone” for motorised vehicles between 9:00am and 9:00pm.
We visited the revamped Chandni Chowk on Thursday only to receive mixed reactions about the project from various stakeholders. While the buyers were gleeful about pedestrianising the bazaar, shopkeepers expressed a mix of anguish and delight. “I am a regular visitor of Chandni Chowk and this has been the first time that I am eating Dahi-Bhalla without being tossed around by a crowd,’’ quipped Neha Kalra (26). “The place used to be packed but now there is space to walk,” Neha’s mother Manju Kalra added.
Remarking that parking is an issue in this zone, a visitor said, “Even though the redeveloped market looks beautiful and is less congested, parking is a big issue. It takes a lot of time to park a vehicle here and becomes tiresome to move past the busy stretch especially when you are with a senior citizen.”
Similar issues were raised by other shopkeepers who mentioned that they find it difficult to load and unload goods since no vehicles can ply the route. “The place is a lot less congested now. However, we have to depend on push carts to transport our goods. There should have been some alternative for shopkeepers. The 9:00am to 9:00pm restriction makes our work difficult,” a shopkeeper said on the condition of anonymity.
Chandni Chowk has a legacy of 400 years, and is witness to Delhi’s history and heritage. Questioning the use of sandstone at the redeveloped site, Delhi-based filmmaker and heritage activist, Sohail Hashmi, added, “The use of sandstone brings a disconnect between the heritage and history of the city of Shahjahanabad. Sandstone is a soft stone that breaks easily. At night, when trucks arrive on the stretch [post the 9:00pm deadline], the pavements will be damaged.”
Hashmi also mentioned that a major attraction in this part of the city is the bazaar. “Most tourists visit Chandni Chowk to see the old bazaar. However, no trace of that has been left. They should have tried to go back to the 19th Century or the early 20th Century look of Chandni Chowk instead,” he added.
Swapna Liddle, historian and author of Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi, on the other hand, welcomed the move. “The redevelopment project has done one important thing, which is to put unsightly and hazardous electrical wires and services underground. The decluttering on the main road is also a positive development. These steps will help reveal and highlight aspects of the heritage of these streets,” she said.
Another suggestion by Liddle was that the infrastructure improvements, such as good drainage and paving, building traffic bottlenecks and facade restoration, are pertinent to keep the heritage value of this site intact.